Rosh Hashanah: A Holy Opportunity

What Is The Book Of Life?

Read this to ensure your Rosh Hashanah prayers come true!

Table for Five: Special Rosh Hashanah Edition

Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Remember us for life, O King who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life – for Your sake, O Living God!

-From the Rosh Hashanah prayers

Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Scholar In Residence JMI/Aish

Sefer Hachayim, The Book of Life – now that has best seller written all over it! After all, who doesn’t want to experience a vibrant and fulfilling life? Who doesn’t want to ingest the secret sauce that unleashes his/her unique and energizing potential? So, the big question is, what constitutes a life well lived and what perspectives can keep us on the path to being inscribed in the Book of Life?

Here’s one thought. It’s interesting and telling that the instrument that is designed to wake us up on Rosh Hashanah, the shofar, must be hollow. I know what you’re thinking. Brilliant observation, Rabbi! It obviously has to be hollow in order for sound to emerge from the instrument. With your indulgence, I’d like to posit a more spiritually satisfying response.

Perhaps the very design of the shofar is teaching us the secret to living a fulfilling life. Perhaps the shofar is trumpeting the perspective that when G-dliness blows through us, when we live elevated lives, then our deepest potentials are awakened within us. However, when we focus selfishly on our own achievements and when we stop striving to be our best selves, we become hollow instruments. The secret to being inscribed in the Book of Life is to live a life that is noble. Life isn’t a biological condition. It’s a divine mission. It’s an invitation to partner with G-d on his vision for a humanity that transcends biology. Now that’s a book I’d want to read and write!

David Brandes, Screenwriter

This is how Rosh Hashanah always went in Kemptville. With the highest of hopes an unknown chazzan was engaged for the Holy Days. Ours was a struggling community of 10 Jewish immigrant families, mostly from Galicia, in a rural Canadian village. We inevitably ended up with an equally struggling Jew from Montreal who barely held a tune.

By mussaf, the late morning service, the tone-deaf chazzan’s singing became so painful that everyone spontaneously turned to Maxie Miller to take over. Maxie, the bitter frustrated benefactor of our clapboard shul, had a beef with everyone and everyone with him. It took endless begging before Maxie, feigning self-deprecation, agreed to step in. Maxie had an annoyingly thin, high, scratchy voice but the moment he took over he became totally immersed in the daunting task of praying on our behalf.

By the time he reached zachreynu l’chaim, remember us for life, he was in full flight. He became our Koussevitzky, the famous Russian conductor. He prayed to God, he pleaded with God, he cried to God. He and God clearly had an intimate relationship that spanned generations. Maxie became transcendent and carried us with him. My mother, my father, the entire community was deeply touched and elevated.

The women’s section started tearing and the men turned solemn. They all trembled before God, as one, praying for inscription in the book of life. I will never forget Maxie’s gift, and his generosity… Unlike most of us, Jews of that generation lived intimately with God. We have lost something worth rediscovering.

Michael Berenbaum, Professor of Jewish Studies, American Jewish Univesity

I deal with death virtually every day: to study the Holocaust is to grapple with murder and to be surrounded by death, cruel death, unjust death, merciless death and by murderers who regard the life of others as worthless, valueless, and the taking of life as inconsequential.

How can one deal with so much sadness, so much loss, so much evil?

I learned the answer from survivors, who dared to recreate life in the aftermath of overwhelming death. The highest birth rate in Europe after World War II was in the Displaced Persons Camps where people who had no idea what the future would bring, where they would live, what they would do, how the world might be, dared to bring new life into the world – Jewish life. They said, na’aseh v’nishma, we shall do and we shall hear.

Life is precarious therefore ever more precious.

Life must be cherished, a gift not to be taken for granted.

Life is to be celebrated. “Choose life so you may live.”

Life is fragile therefore, it must be lived within intensity, with purpose, yet also with care.

This year as we are all surrounded by death, by the threat death, this plea is ever more important.

Life is to be preserved: the commandment of this hour is vaccines, even boosters, masks, and necessary social distancing, protecting ourselves by protecting others.

I embrace the paradox of these Days of Awe: we confront our finiteness, our fragility, even our insignificance but are told to reach for the infinite, be strong, and become of significance.

Yehudit Garmaise, Reporter, freelance writer

When we ask to be inscribed in the Book of Life, we are asking for shelimus, wholeness, within ourselves, our communities, and with Hashem.

First, healing comes from the acceptance of Hashgacha Pratis, or Divine Providence, that everything we have experienced and continue to experience is heaven-sent – specially chosen to equip us to serve others and to fulfill our personal missions.

Our sense of wholeness also requires our quiet understanding that everything we need is right in front of us, or just not yet revealed.

In terms of our relationships with others, we gain wholeness from remembering to silently retreat from conflict: the opposite of shalom. Peace, however, is not just the avoidance of combat, but in Hebrew, shalom is close to the word shalem, or “complete.”

This year, we might remember to ask, not just for a sense of fullness for ourselves, and not just for other Jews, but for the wholeness that comes from all of K’lal Israel living good, healthy, and peaceful lives that are guided by the Torah.

Our shelimus, comes from living as Hashem commands. We do, and we understand. Our wholeness also derives from our temimus, or purity, as we read in Parshas Shoftim, “Be complete with Hashem, your G-d.”

From here we learn that in exchange for living by the Torah, Hashem rewards us with an indescribable sense of peace, wholeness, and sweetness.

Wishing everyone the simcha that comes from knowing that we are a fortunate mishpacha, family, in that Hashem is always near.

Ilana Wilner, Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Yeshiva University

There is a story told about Rabbi Salanter. He went for a walk in the neighborhood one winter night. Along the way, he saw a small house with a dim light in the window that glowed in the darkness. The light drew him to the house, and he entered it. In the faint light he saw a shoemaker fixing shoes in a hurry, hitting the hammer at full force. The rabbi asked him: “Why are you working this late at night to repair shoes?” The man replied: “As long as the candle is burning there’s still time to work and repair.” The Rabbi left the shoemaker’s home and continued his neighborhood walk. But as he was walking, he began reciting the shoemaker’s words first to himself and then aloud for everyone to hear: “Dear Jews, as long as the candle is burning, there’s still time to work and repair.”

In our verse we see the word chaim, life, repeated four times. The emphasis on this word challenges us to think about the light still burning, the work still to be done. This year as I recite this prayer during the ten days of repentance, I will be thinking of the burning light, that it is never too late to re-examine and reignite the word and meaning of “life.”

Even as we look back on this difficult year let us also make sure we are looking ahead. With each repetition of the word chaim, I will ask myself, is my life aligned with one that God wants and considers righteous? Was I compassionate enough? Kind enough? Charitable enough? Patient enough?

We recite this verse during the Ten Days of Repentance to remind us the candle is still burning, and there is still work to be done to better ourselves and the world. I know I’ll be thinking about this story during my prayers.

With thanks to Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, David Brandes, Michael Berenbaum, Yehudit Garmaise, and Ilana Wilner.

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